Brightwork over the Pennines

It still surprises me that the extraordinary decorative paintwork tradition of the Leeds and Liverpool canal is not better known, not lauded or loved more profoundly and proudly. Compared to the ‘Roses and Castles’ of the narrow boats it is a tradition as obscure as something from Fiji or darkest Finland. There are excuses but no good reasons for this disparity and it is to be hoped that a soon-to-be-published book on the subject will do something to balance the account. Watch this space for more details in the spring. I have seen the roughs, and it is going to be splendid. (Details here now – Ed.)

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Its under-recorded status is partly the fault of the boats, built to a gauge to suit the rather oddball size of the locks of this trans-pennine waterway, linking the waterways of the big sailing barges of the west, the Mersey flats, with those of the east, the Humber keels. The boats shared an ancestry from both sets of cousins but being built as strictly inland boats for shallow waters they became a separate class of canal craft with, over time, a distinctive set of decorative characteristics too. The classic boat was a small bluff-bowed horse drawn barge, roughly 60 foot long by 14 foot beam with a broad transom stern for maximum capacity and stern cabin space. It was on that transom and the massive rudder that the decorative paintwork flourished most spectacularly, an explosive mixture of colour and pattern – panelling, lines, lettering, pictures and, above all, insistent rolling scrollwork. This regional tradition survived the Second World War surprisingly well and transferred quite comfortably to the pointed sterned steam and motor boats as well. But it was at the Liverpool end that the tradition finally flourished most spectacularly, on the big 70 foot coal boats running from the Wigan coalfields into the city, and I am still amazed that these gloriously decorated craft did not have more impact on the wider canal world.

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Some of this present cultural obscurity has to be blamed on the early canal restoration pioneers, book-inspired and London based. The key book was Rolt’s Narrow Boat, elegiac and romantic, an exploration of the countryside and the time worn engineering of the canal age. His personal discovery was the life and people of the delicately decorated narrow boats of the Oxford Canal, remnants of the almost rural life of the canal village. His interest was in old craftsmanship and attitudes, a conservationist philosophy that appealed very directly to his war weary readers and followers in the 1940s and 50s. It was not about the blackened reality of contemporary industries, of the constant stream of coal boats driving relentlessly into Burnley and Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester. But this was an area that a separate tradition of vibrant boat decoration was surviving –thriving even, and still developing at the time.

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The London bias was equally important. It was where Robert Aikman and the I.W.A. operated, it was where the influential writers, artists and politicians lived and worked and, even more critically, it was where the national press was based. Any reporter could nip down to Paddington and find a few photogenically decorated narrow boats, or get on a train and visit real boat painters at work at Braunston or Leighton Buzzard and be back in time for tea. But a trip to the misty valleys of Lancashire was a different sort on expedition entirely. They were ‘up North’, a region of coal and satanic mills that the metropolis found it more comfortable to ignore or perhaps preferred to forget. Mines and mills were not yet romantic and the roses and castles of the narrow boats became the iconography of the canal preservation movement whilst the more localised ‘brightwork’ tradition of the Leeds and Liverpool was sidelined.

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Meanwhile, in common with the rest of the canal system, traffic was declining and the old wooden boats that carried the most elaborate versions of this localised tradition were getting worn out and withdrawn from service. More modern steel motor barges continued to carry an echo of the tradition into the 1960s but the wooden boats vanished very quickly. Expensive to maintain and too big to have much of a cruising range these wonderful boats missed the bonus from the pleasure boat boom that old narrow boats enjoy and they have become very rare very fast. Today there are only two wooden survivors, both at the Waterway Museum at Ellesmere Port, but both in desperate condition, needing much money and conservation effort to survive. George is the sole remaining transom sterned Leeds and Liverpool ‘short’ boat and Scorpio is the only wooden ‘long’ boat left. The photographs shown alongside were taken some while ago when both boats were younger and in fairer fettle. Today’s view would be much sadder, alas, but they still exist and still float. And they still need your help.

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